Poor relief in the parish of Urquhart and Resolis

Recently (2018) there was a discussion on the Facebook page of Black Isle Images as to whether there had been a Poor House in the village. It soon became clear that there hadn't been one but it prompted a re-look at Dr. Young's history of "The Parish of Urquhart and Logie Wester" published on this site. During 1982 Dr. Young produced a parish newsletter and in the issue for June - July 1982 he presented "Gleanings from Congregational History - 9, Poor relief in Urquhart and Resolis" in which he went into far greater detail than he was able to use in his follow-up booklet.

"The organisation of Poor Relief at the parish level was originally enacted in Scotland in 1579, with the responsibility in the hands of the magistrates. In 1672 the Heritors and Kirk Session were made responsible for collecting and distributing the relief. This arrangement continued till 1845, when Parochial boards were formed.

To quote Nelson's Encyclopaedia - "The assessment was voluntary. The poor funds were the collections taken at the church door; and the distribution of relief was governed more by the amount of the collections than by the necessities of the poor. The only objects of poor-relief were the aged and impotent poor who were divided into two classes, the permanent and the occasional poor. The permanent poor were relieved with money or victuals, or were granted a licence to beg."

A great deal of detail is given in the Urquhart Session Records in the 18th Century about the annual distribution to the poor, and it is clear that this was a matter of great concern to Minister and Elders alike - more than once we read that "the day being far spent they suspended their other affairs". The Minister's stipend, and the general upkeep of church and manse were the responsibility of the Heritors, who received the teinds and the rents from their tenants. The income which passed through the hands of the Kirk Session came from various sources. At first the chief of these were the Sunday Collections; the special Communion Collections; the rent of "Mortification" or Poor's Land at Dingwall bequeathed to the congregation in 1709; the interest (not always collected annually) on three ”bonds", in the names of Ardross, Redcastle, and Lady Kindeace; and the fines from the "delinquents" disciplined by the Session, mostly for immora1ity. Later these were supplemented by fees charged for the hiring out of a velvet "mortcloth" (pall) to the better off, and a cloth mortcloth to the poorer members; and after the construction of the "Poor's Isle" very substantially from seat rents. Not all of this went to the poor. For many years the Session was plagued with "bad copper" - in 1711, for instance, out of £65 scots, nearly €£12 scots had to be written off and handed over to the Minister to keep. What he did ultimately with it is not recorded! Then the Kirk Officer, and sometimes the Session Clerk, and later the Schoolmaster, had to be paid or given a percentage of particular dues. Various travel expenses had to be met; some items like an hour-glass for timing the sermon had to be purchased; repairs to doors and pews had to be carried out; and communion expenses included not only tables and cloths, but such matters as 2/- paid in 1769 "to Thos. Reach for damage done to Corn at the Time of the Communion".  There were of course big expenses in the erection of the Poor's Isle in 1750, and in its seating later; and in 1754 the Session paid £1 8s sterling for the erection of a stone bridge at Alcaig, meeting the expense from a sale of trees from the churchyard!

The regular practice was to meet about the end of July, calculate the nett balance in hand, and disburse all of it to the poor. Occasionally the Minister would advance some money out of his own pocket, and be reimbursed later from the collections. 0nly very occasionally was a balance kept in hand for a specific purpose: for instance in 1771 £7 15 10d was "appointed for buying communion cups" - the cups we use in Urquhart today. In addition to the annual distribution, ad hoc relief would be given to "poor Objects" during the course of the year and deducted from the balance available at the annual reckoning. For instance, in 1747 we read that "Colin Martin a poor invalid was allowed the next Lord's Day collection."

The number of "poor Objects" helped increased as time went on - in 1729 it was 66, in Donald Fraser's time the average was 124, under Charles Calder 200, and under the "Apostle of the North" 170. The amount distributed rose slowly, with  fluctuations. Stated in sterling, in 1729 it was £5 4 6d, in 1750 £8, in 1757 £11, but in 1758 only £7, but by 1769, with the rents from the Poor's Isle it had risen to £16. In 1792 under Charles Calder it had risen to £24, in 1840 under Dr John MacDonald it was £55, and the last distribution, in 1845, amounted to £92. Under Alexander Falconar the day of the Distribution was intimated, and presumably most or all of those who came received something. Under Donald Fraser in 1757 badges were distributed to 80 of the poor. These presumably gave them licence to beg from door to door. Often those helped were widows or orphans, and frequently a recipient is described as "a blind" or even as "a fool". One interesting payment is recorded in 1757: "To be given to Jannet Ross, Daughter Mr Andrew Ross, Late Minister of this parish, at Cromarty, five shillings". It is touching to see the aged daughter of a Minister who had died in 1812 being remembered 45 years later. In 1762 we read "10/6d was paid to McColny whose house and effects were burnt by an accident."

Full lists of the names and addresses of individuals helped and the amounts given take up many pages of the Session Records for the years 1757 -1772. Not all the poor received the same amount. In 1757 the highest amount, paid to three people, was 5/-, and many only got 1/-. In 1769 the highest amount paid was 6/- and all but a few got at least 2/-. The general impression one gets is that it was very difficult for the Session to refuse to give at least something to those who came, and that in many cases the help didn't go very far. Under Charles Calder the average amount given would be between 4/- and 5/-.

It is interesting to contrast this practice with the arrangements for Poor Relief in the "Parish of Kirkmichael, or Resolis" under Rev Robert Arthur, who was minister there from 1774 to 1821, This is described, mostly in Arthur's own words, by Sir George Steuart Mackenzie, in his book, “A General Survey of the Counties of Ross and Cromarty”, published in 1810.

"During the twelve last years, the number of poor has varied from 34 to 38. They are divided into classes, according to their necessities. The Reverend Mr. Arthur has taken great pains in this department of his duty." He then goes on to quote a letter from Mr Arthur:

"Before my settlement, and during several years thereafter, there were no funds for the poor but the weekly collections in church, which were very trifling indeed. About the year 1788 I began to form a little permanent fund, which, by attention and perseverance, now amounts to £76 10s. Besides the interest of that sum, the weekly collections and dues from the mortcloth have amounted, for several years past, to £11 and often to £14 per annum. For 30 years I have had the poor divided into three or four classes, which has been attended with much benefit to the greatest objects.

After paying the session clerk, and kirk officer, catechist, and incidental expenses,

The first class, receives from 14s to 16s.

The second receives from 8s to 10s

The third receives from 4s to 6s

The fourth receives from 2s6d to 3s6d and 4s

"When I became minister of this parish I found, owing to the undue influence of twelve elders, 90 persons on the poor's roll, many of whom were by no means in want. I thought it prudent, however, to allow matters to remain as they were for a few years. At last, I obtained an act of session, ordaining that no person should, in future get any share of the poor's fund, who did not sign an obligation to leave their all, after paying their debts and funeral expenses, to the poor of the parish; except they had near relations, who could be proved to have been liberal and kind to the deceased in their distress. This was a most unpopular measure: it had however, the effect I desired, and reduced the number of those who were really poor to thirty four."

Mackenzie clearly admired Arthur's method: he has less respect for Calder. "It appears that there are 200 poor in the parish, and that the fund for distribution amounts to £24. From the immense multitudes who attend the church of this remarkably popular minister, the smallness of the fund gives a very poor idea of the charity of his hearers."

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